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Science Center

Westminster's New Science Center

By Virginia Rainey

"The future of science is happening at the intersections of the disciplines."

--Peter Meldrum, CEO of Myriad Genetics and Chair of the Westminster Science Advisory Board

Since awarding the contract for design of a new science center to MBT Architects of San Francisco in April 2004, Westminster College has launched plans for one of the most innovative college science facilities in the intermountain region. In alignment with Westminster's strategic plan, the proposed 65,000-square-foot science center will function as a dazzling, multidisciplinary teaching and research tool in itself.

"We are thrilled that we've teamed up with the right firm for the job," noted Mary Jane Chase, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. "MBT Architecture has specialized in designing science and technology buildings for universities since its founding in 1954. The architects have won six 'Lab of the Year' awards from R&D Magazine, most recently for the Clark Center for Stanford University. From the beginning of the review process, they demonstrated their abilities to listen to our needs and to present ideas and solutions outside the conventional thinking about academia and science."

When they began to envision concepts for Westminster's proposed new science center, MBT embraced a specific list of "must haves" from the college's science faculty, board, and administration. That list includes:

An open architecture, combining shared and integrated learning environments with high-performance, changeable classrooms and labs.

The ability to support cutting-edge and evolving technologies such as wireless computing, image-capturing microscopes, nuclear magnetic resonance capability, and an adaptable infrastructure that will enhance collaboration and research. In short, it must be configured to adapt to the rapid advances in scientific methodology and technology.

Embodiment of Westminster's commitment to environmental responsibility.

MBT delivered on all counts. The design team also considered the context of the building in the distinctive geography of the campus, the Salt Lake Valley, and Utah as a whole. "Big skies, the powerful presence of nature, an urban campus surrounded by mountains and desert, diverse topography, extreme cold, heat, snowit all figures into the building and the curriculum," according to architect Richard Clarke.

Forward Thinking Model in Place

Westminster's science faculty is already developing and practicing a forward-thinking model of scientific education grounded in four principles: encouraging active learning, emphasizing learning through experience, promoting interdisciplinary learning, and practicing science as a collaborative process. This model, reiterated in the strategic plan, has served the college's science students well. Many have presented papers at conferences, published in peer-reviewed journals, won national scholarships and gained admission to some of the best graduate programs in the nation. However, while the model is very 21st century, it is challenged daily as students and faculty make do in facilities that date back more than a half century.

Westminster's current science building, built in 1949 and updated in the 1970s, isolates classrooms, labs, disciplines, and faculty from one another--the opposite of the ideal configuration. And its infrastructure cannot support modern technology. With classroom space at a premium and the popularity of the sciences at an all-time high, the time for a new facility has clearly arrived.

Eric Glissmeyer, a recent graduate of Westminster's science program who will enter the University of Utah's medical school this year, noted, "I am thrilled about the new science building. I attended a meeting about the construction plans and was pleased to find that the designs under consideration are conducive to teacher-student interaction. The innovative, flexible laboratory space is exciting--and best of all, the new building will not overshadow, but will support the most valuable characteristic of the college: student-centered teaching."

Though the specifics of the building design are currently being discussed and refined, the overall concept is clear. "Today, science is about seamless intersections among scientific disciplines--about biologists crossing over into the realms of physicists, mathematicians conducting research with chemists, about collaboration in the real world," noted Assistant Professor of Biology Bonnie Baxter. "We need a science center that supports our efforts to blend undergraduate research with teaching and to cross disciplines. Our new building will help us eliminate the stale idea of "canned" lab experiences in which the outcome is predetermined. We want students to engage in novel experiences. Believe it or not, this kind of structure is a breakthrough in academic science."

David Goldsmith, assistant professor of geology, noted, "I'm especially happy about the green features of the building, from the materials they will be able to use to the heating and lighting systems. The building will surround us with real examples of the principles we teach students in class." It will also be a "green" building designed in part with the goal of further distinguishing Westminster as among the leading colleges and universities across the country by becoming the first LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) Certified college science building in Utah.

"Our plans for a new science center are all about the future of the college and our abilities to deliver the best education to students," said Chase. "The type of building we have proposed furthers our goal of becoming a regional institution--a destination for students interested in serious scientific careers. Here, they will learn, conduct research, and interact with faculty and students in all scientific disciplines in an environment that incorporates new and emerging technologies and champions true scientific inquiry--all facilitated by the building's design."

The college's plans call for the building to open in the fall of 2007 on the site of what is now the Payne Gymnasium. Meanwhile, Westminster will begin raising the $20 million needed for planning, design, and construction, as well as an additional $5 million to endow the continuing maintenance costs.

"We have a stellar science faculty, we have outstanding students, we have a building concept that beautifully expresses our strategic plan," noted Chase. "This building will have an incredible impact on Westminster College's future. We're excited to move to the next phase."

Recent Science Award Winners at Westminster

These award-winning students have excelled in Westminster's rigorous science program, going on to win academic honors that will enhance their graduate-study experiences.

Ashlee Allred was recently awarded the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship as well as the Doyle W. Stevens Scholarship from the Friends of Great Salt Lake organization; Christopher Averill, Nicholas Hanson, Ashley Phillips, and Jason Rupp have all been named Beta Beta Beta (also known as Tri-Beta, the National Biological Honor Society) scholars.

Alex Meyers won 2nd place in the oral presentation competition and Ashlee Allred took 3rd place in the poster category at the National Tri-Beta undergraduate research conference.